Every child grows at his or her own pace but research shows that a child’s first five years are the most important time for development.
A newborn’s brain is only about one-quarter the size of an adult’s. But it grows to about 80 percent of adult size by age 3 and 90 percent by age five.
That’s why early childhood education is so important, and especially critical is ensuring that parents have the skills and resources needed to help their children develop and reach their full potential.
Throughout Northwest Florida are a number of agencies and organizations that offer a variety of voluntary in-home service at no cost to families that qualify.
Home visiting, in fact, is one of many tools used to prevent child abuse and improve child well being by providing education and services in homes through parent education and connection to community resources.
Tim Putman, executive director of Children’s Home Society, says an important part of child development is kindergarten readiness.
“We help moms learn how to help their children meet developmental milestones to keep families on track,” Putman says. “The whole idea is to make sure that children are developmentally ready for kindergarten.”
Among the goals of the Studer Community Institute is to improve the community’s quality of life, and providing quality education is a critical part of it.
Kindergarten readiness is among 16 key metrics in the Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard. It is also an essential key to preparing children for early education and helping them continue toward high school graduation and beyond.
It has often been said the home is the first school, and parents are the first teachers. Research shows that the relationship children have with their parents and other caregivers are vital to early childhood development. These relationships are the foundation of the approach to promoting child development through home visits.
Ideally, the visiting professional builds a relationship with the primary caregiver and other family members, helping them understand infant and toddler development and behavior and helping the family through any special challenges their child presents.
At their best, home visiting programs provide structured visits by trained professionals and paraprofessionals to high-risk parents who are either pregnant or have young children.
These programs support families by providing health check-ups, screenings, referrals, parenting advice and guidance with navigating other programs and services. The programs also monitor progress on children’s developmental milestones.
Home visiting programs help parents provide safe and supportive environments for their children. When families are fully engaged and complete the programs, home visits build strong relationships that can lead to long-term and lasting benefits for the children and their families.
The key is providing parents with the information, support and encouragement needed for their child to reach his or her optimal development stage during the crucial early years of life.
In-home visits and partnerships can take a variety of forms, and work with a variety of home visiting models.
In Northwest Florida, agencies that offer in-home visits for parents with children between ages 0 to 5 include:
— Children’s Home Society and 90Works (formerly Families Count).
Funded by the Department of Children and Families, the two agencies operate under the state’s Ounce Prevention Program.
Service is available for low-income pregnant mothers and their children up to 5 years old in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. Children’s Home Society can serve up to 175 families a year.
It has two family assessment workers who make the initial contact, and eight family support workers who perform the home visits.
90Works serves 130 families through the Healthy Start.
It has three assessment workers and seven family support workers.
— Escambia County Healthy Start Coalition
Healthy Start was enacted by state legislation in 1991 with the goals of reducing infant mortality, reducing the number of low birth weight babies, and improving health and developmental outcomes for all Florida’s babies.
The Coalition is dedicated to improving the health of pregnant women and babies. The coalition relies on local community input to plan, implement, and evaluate a comprehensive system of care for pregnant women and children, up to age 3, who might be at risk for a poor pregnancy or birth outcome.
Healthy Start serves about 1,700 children annually, with a staff of 14 nurses. Eligibility is based on screening scores and other identified risk factors. Services include parenting education, counseling, referrals for nutrition counseling, among other things.
— Early Steps
Funded through Department of Health grants, Early Steps has 14 regional offices in the four-county area. Operating under the Children Medical Services, Early Steps provides services from birth to age 3 for children with developmental disabilities, regardless of income.
In Escambia County, a staff of 20 serves more than 600 children. Eligibility is determined through a screening process. Early Steps coordinate with community agencies and other providers for the delivery of needed supports and services.
— Community Action Program Early Head Start
In-home visits are for non-working parents with children ages 0 to 3. The program serves 38 infants and toddlers in Escambia County. Home visit workers make a house call once a week to non-working parents. Twice a month, the program brings parents to a center with their child. Early Head Start identifies goals for school readiness and set goals for learning for each child, working with families in their homes and through daily routines to prepare children for school.
To ensure families receive the full benefits of participating in home visiting programs, they must remain engaged throughout the curriculum and complete the appropriate number of visits with their home visitor.
Obviously, home visiting is not a single clearly defined method of providing service to children and families. In-home visiting programs offer an array of activities and services with the hope of ensuring that at-risk families have social support, access to public and private community services and ongoing health, developmental and educational programs.
Putman of Children’s Home Services said his agency’s ultimate goal is to prevent child abuse and get children prepared and ready for school.
“We’re not coming in to correct things, but to provide assistance,” Putman said. “We want them to do the best they can for their babies and get the resources they need to help.”